In recent months, Brazil has been portrayed increasingly as a beacon of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals in Latin America. It received international praise after the Conselho Nacional de Justiça (National Council of Justice—CNJ) released a decision ordering the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. Soon after, it garnered worldwide attention when it hosted the 17th LGBT pride parade in São Paulo, widely considered to be the world’s largest.
Yet in striking similarity to Carnaval, lavish pride celebrations in Brazil have come to mask a far deeper and more complex history of violence and oppression.
In a milestone event that garnered far less media attention than those mentioned above, LGBTI activists gathered last month with a group of progressive lawmakers at the 10th National LGBT Seminar to discuss their most pressing needs. Their main concerns included increasing rates of violence and a rise in “fundamentalism and religious intolerance” that has begun to seriously threaten their already limited rights.
Specifically, they have come under attack following the election of Federal Deputy Pastor Marco Feliciano (Partido Social Cristão-São Paulo) to preside over the Chamber of Deputies’ Comissão de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (Committee on Human Rights and Minorities—CDHM). A staunchly anti-gay social conservative, Feliciano has made inflammatory statements, including a claim that “AIDS is the gay cancer,” and that Afro-Brazilians are cursed by their ethnic heritage.His nomination has been seen as a symbolic assault on the country’s continued struggle for equality and human rights, and as a major strengthening of the socially conservative—and strongly anti-LGBTI—Evangelical Congressional Caucus. Feliciano’s appointment galvanized activists on both sides of the debate, with many calling for his immediate resignation and others fiercely defending him. As he refused to step down and congressional leadership struggled to contain the controversy, Federal Deputy Jean Wyllys (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade—Rio de Janeiro), who is also Brazil’s only openly gay member of Congress, spearheaded a mass resignation from the CDHM and formed a shadow human rights committee known as the Frente Parlamentar em Defesa dos Direitos Humanos (Congressional Human Rights Defense Caucus). The group’s primary objective has been to create an alternative space of public reflection for victims of severe human rights violations who are now commonly denied access to the CDHM.
Deputy Feliciano is also considered a direct obstacle to legislative proposals aiming to protect the rights of LGBTI people. Among their primary concerns, activists fear passage of legislative decree PDC 234, popularly known as the “gay cure” law. The bill seeks to overturn a 1999 provision by the Conselho Federal de Psicologia (National Council of Psychology—CFP), which prohibits mental health professionals from performing “conversion” therapies designed to modify the sexual orientation or gender identity of their patients.
They also worry that Feliciano could strengthen opposition to PLC 122, a bill seeking to extend federal protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity in a list of prohibited bias-motivated forms of violence and discrimination. Lastly, Feliciano’s leadership represents a serious challenge to the pending approval of PL 5002, a bill which would create a comprehensive gender identity law by guaranteeing state recognition and protection of gender identity, permitting individuals to legally change their names in all public registries and identity documents and providing free surgical and hormonal interventions to those who wish to pursue them.
It is fundamentally important that Brazil be recognized for its advancements in the promotion and protection of LGBTI rights. However, it is equally imperative that it develop a comprehensive response to the many challenges that remain unresolved. In a significant move, Brazil voted this week to enact the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance. If ratified by Congress, it will be the first international agreement to explicitly prohibit discrimination committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, marking an unprecedented milestone for LGBTI people across the Americas.
Nevertheless, its symbolic importance will do little to protect those faced with daily threats of violence and persecution. Beyond aspirational commitments to international treaties, Brazil must undergo far greater efforts to ensure the basic safety and protection of its LGBTI citizens.